New Boston Mayor Embraces Digital Technology

Incoming Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is contemplating monthly webcasts, virtual community meetings and a tech makeover for the city's public access channel.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (right) meets with incoming Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. Flickr/Eric Haynes/Office of Governor Patrick

For the first time ever, there is a computer on the desk of Boston’s mayor, just one of several signs that a new digital era has arrived at City Hall.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has not one, but two iPhones — an iPhone 5 as his personal phone, and a shiny new iPhone 5s for his office phone. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Walsh’s predecessor, was a notorious technophobe — though he hired people who did a ton to bridge the city’s digital divide. He knew social media was important but he didn’t really get how it worked.

Walsh does. He pushes himself to learn. Walsh uses apps on his iPad to read the news and to capture images of business cards.

He posts from the social media dashboard Hootsuite and even uses Twitter, just yesterday sending out the pregame message: “Go Pats!!! MJW” which is how his personal tweets are signed. And he does another thing that Menino never quite mastered.

“Yes, I check my own email,” Walsh told the Herald. “I texted a ‘LOL’ today. I talk to my girlfriend’s daughter to find out what all those sayings mean.”

What will having a digitally literate mayor mean? Here are some of the ideas being floated:

  • Monthly mayoral webcasts.
  • Virtual community meetings, letting citizens weigh in from home.
  • A city app to promote independently owned businesses.
  • A public schools/startup community connection.
  • A high-tech overhaul for the city’s neglected public access channel.

“We have an incredible opportunity here to firmly insert technology throughout city government and to make doing business with the city easier and more common sense,” Walsh said.

Walsh has already discussed ideas for new city apps with the Office of New Urban Mechanics, the small civic innovation department he wants to expand. And he’s promoted a 33-year-old expert in constituent services, Justin Holmes, to the position of interim chief information officer, a job that could easily have gone to a veteran of the perfunctory world of IT, a sign Walsh knows City Hall departments can be laboratories for new ideas.

As Menino’s director of constituent engagement, Holmes more than doubled the number of residents who interact with the city, launched the first Twitter feed for constituent services, helped get the Citizens Connect app off the ground and dramatically improved the satisfaction rate of residents who asked their government for help.

“When you think about municipal technology, it’s not the ends, it’s the means,” Holmes said. “Mayor Walsh knows this, so the opportunity to drive change is "incredibly exciting.”

Added Nigel Jacob, one of the city’s two research and development gurus: “With Mayor Walsh, it’s just a new day.”

© 2014 the Boston Herald